The sun also rises - Aberdeen arts renaissance
Aberdeen is undergoing a welcome cultural renaissance from the staging of Grassic Gibbon's classic to a spectacular new £13m art space, writes Mark Fisher
SITTING behind the expansive glass windows in the first-floor restaurant at His Majesty's Theatre (HMT), you sense the first stirrings of a cultural renaissance in Aberdeen. The table at which chief executive Duncan Hendry is sitting commands a fabulous view of Union Terrace Gardens, the site earmarked for a 13m centre for contemporary arts. Meanwhile his own organisation, Aberdeen Performing Arts (APA), is raising its game by staging original work at HMT for the first time and, no small task, taking over the nearby Lemon Tree arts centre.
At a time when people have been taking to the streets in protest over 27m cuts in council spending in Aberdeen, it's a rare good news story for the arts.
"It's important that we reflect the culture of the area and that's been a weakness over the years," says Hendry. "That's why this development is hugely exciting for us and for Aberdeen."
Even the idea that HMT should be an attractive place to eat – caf with wi-fi downstairs, three-course dining above – runs counter to the theatre's image as a dowdy throwback to an earlier century (not necessarily the last one). Yet the changes afoot go deeper than the glass-box extension, which was completed in time for the theatre's centenary in 2006 as part of a 7.8m refit.
Of more lasting significance is a shift in the policy of APA, the charitable company that runs HMT and the Music Hall, making it not just a programmer of the 1,400-seat theatre, but a producer as well. In any other city, the plans would be seen as modest – an autumn staging of Sunset Song by Mearns novelist Lewis Grassic Gibbon is the only full production we'll see this year – but in Aberdeen, where home-grown drama is virtually unknown, it counts as a major innovation.
It will be a long time before Scotland's third city develops its own rep company to rival those in the much smaller towns of Dundee, Perth and Pitlochry. And Aberdeen poses no cultural threat to its twin city of Stavanger, Norway, where the Rogaland Teater produces 12 plays a year and supports a permanent ensemble of 24 actors, despite catering to half the population.
But the autumn production of Sunset Song, directed by no less a figure than Kenny Ireland, formerly of Edinburgh's Royal Lyceum, and touring to Glasgow, Inverness, Edinburgh and Perth, is an important marker for the future. Apart from the 2006 co-production of John Byrne's Tutti Frutti with the National Theatre of Scotland, it will be the first large-scale production from HMT since it built a rehearsal studio in 2005.
"When we planned the redevelopment of the theatre, the idea was that we would remain largely a receiving house but produce the occasional piece of work ourselves," says Hendry. "Sunset Song is the obvious first production for us to do: a very popular novel, a local theme, and it's toured successfully in the past."
There is a bigger change under way that gives an even clearer impression of APA's evolution. At the start of this month, the organisation picked up the keys to the Lemon Tree, the multi-arts venue that went into liquidation in December. More than 50 staff lost their jobs and the granite city's fragile arts economy lost a much-loved cornerstone.
APA's plan is for normal service – or something like it – to be resumed in June, bringing comedy, music and small-scale dance and theatre back to the city. Once an artistic director is in place (expect an announcement any day now) the way will be open for residencies and co-productions and, who knows, maybe a bit of an indigenous theatre scene developing. What is especially promising is that, as an adopted sister to HMT, the Lemon Tree could nurture shows that will grow into main stage hits.
"I've gone through many years of people trying to start up producing theatre companies in Aberdeen, and for one reason or another it hasn't happened," says Hendry, who was the director of the Aberdeen Alternative Festival and part of the team that set up the Lemon Tree in 1991. "That's why we decided to do something about it. We're already producing some small-scale pieces in the studio space of HMT and planning large-scale work for the main stage. Simultaneously, the Lemon Tree lease has become available, so that complements our thinking. There are a small number of theatre practitioners in the city and it's a question of supporting them and trying to establish that part of the creative community in the city. And we're hoping to do much more in terms of cutting-edge drama at the Lemon Tree."
As Hendry is outlining these plans, we're looking out to the Victorian gardens where Peacock Visual Arts, the 34-year-old studio originally set up for printmaking and now the main centre for contemporary arts in the north-east of Scotland, intends to expand from its cramped quarters on Castle Street into a major gallery, workshop, dance studio and screening room.
The scheme was given the thumbs-up by the Scottish Government in February and endorsed with a 4m Scottish Arts Council capital lottery grant two weeks ago. Most of the 13.1m budget is accounted for and things are looking good for an opening in spring 2011.
The submerged glass-fronted building, designed by acclaimed London architects Brisac Gonzalez, will maintain the contours of the gardens while the combination of restaurant and arts activities will revitalise a pretty but underused corner of the city centre.
"It's been ingeniously designed to fit into the gardens while retaining the green spaces," says Elly Rothnie, the project's campaign leader, who is aiming to attract 200,000 visitors a year and bring 5m a year to the local economy. "The gardens have fallen out of use and there's a need for a contemporary art gallery, so it's solving two problems. Thankfully, there's been a realisation that if you want to make this an attractive city to live in, you need to invest in the arts."
By the time Rothnie is ready to cultivate a new market for visual art, Hendry will be several steps along the path to broadening his audience's taste in theatre. On the surface, demand is not his problem: last year's HMT audiences of 255,000 were 10% up, helping produce a healthy bank balance, which in turn has helped in taking on the Lemon Tree. As elsewhere in the country, however, it's the musicals that draw in ever greater crowds, while straight drama struggles to hold its own. Hendry's job is to persuade audiences they'll also enjoy a range of home-grown theatre on a variety of scales.
"Aberdeen is more vibrant now than it has been for a long time," he says. "The Aberdeen International Youth Festival is in good shape, there's a lively amateur arts scene and a lot of youth music theatre of a fantastic quality. There are a huge number of children and teenagers involved in that which makes me optimistic about the next few years."
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Monday 20 May 2013
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